- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2010

Pakistani officials offer behind-the-scenes support and vital intelligence for U.S. drone strikes that target terrorists operating in their territory, even as they denounce such operations in public as a violation of their sovereignty.

The Obama administration in recent months has stepped up a covert program of firing missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles at terrorists operating in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border.

The Predator drones are operated from bases inside Pakistan — the Shamsi air base and Jacobabad — and operations are planned after what Pakistani officials describe as “robust intelligence sharing” between Pakistan and the U.S.

Pakistani officials say privately that the U.S. keeps them informed on covert operations targeting terrorists on Pakistani soil and admit that the drones have been deadly, effective weapons in the war against terrorists.

A Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the militant-hunting operations, said the drones have been “extremely useful in eliminating the bad guys.”

But the silent Pakistani support for such missions reached a breaking point Thursday after a NATO helicopter crossed over into Pakistani territory and allegedly killed three Pakistani soldiers. Islamabad retaliated by cutting off a vital supply line at Torkham for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said in a statement it had observed what it believed was a group of insurgents trying to fire mortars at a coalition base in the border area of Dand Patan district in Paktiya province. It admitted its aircraft had entered into Pakistani airspace “briefly.”

ISAF said the aircraft came under small-arms fire from across the border in Pakistan. “Operating in self-defense, the ISAF aircraft entered into Pakistani airspace killing several armed individuals,” it added.

Pakistani military officials said members of their Frontier Corps force had been struck by coalition aircraft.

The blockage of the supply route caused a major backup of NATO vehicles waiting to cross into Afghanistan, and a long-term closure could hurt the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani protested the “violation” of sovereignty in their meetings with CIA Director Leon Panetta in Islamabad.

Mr. Gilani said Pakistan was “profoundly concerned” about the incursion and the increased U.S. drone strikes.

Past Pakistani protests have been the result of an attempt to address criticism of such incidents by the public.

“Drone attacks have their diplomatic and political cost,” said Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington. “Pakistan is opposed to drone attacks and conveyed its concerns to the U.S. government.”

“We are partners in the campaign against terrorism, but we consider these attacks as counterproductive and instead of helping our long-term efforts to win hearts and minds, which we believe are vital in achieving our common objective, these attacks fuel public anger against the [Pakistani] government and the United States,” Mr. Haqqani added.

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